Today I want to play it safe by recommending Topaz, Alfred Hitchcock‘s espionage movie from back in 1969, which cleverly combines the master’s trademark suspense with a multi-sided romantic subtext.
It begins with a complicated and dangerous operation by CIA agent Michael Nordstrom who manages to expatriate Russian defector Boris Kusenov and his family under the eyes of KGB enemies.
Of course, this is not a charity transaction, as the man holds vital information about military maneuvers on Cuban soil.
Thanks to a French service colleague, André Devereaux, they find confirmation in the defector’s claims indicating the Russians are sending numerous missiles to Fidel Castro‘s government.
Moreover, underneath this heavy reinvigoration of the Cuban arsenal lies another secret operation, about which, unfortunately, they know only the name: Topaz.
Since the Americans are not welcome after the tragic Bay of Pigs, Nordstrom asks the Frenchman, Devereaux, to go to the place and exploit the rebel network to gather information.
Devereaux’s wife, Nicole, is less than enthusiastic about this mission, not only because of the danger and the fact he must work secretly from his superiors but also since, in Cuba, she knows full well there is an ancient lover of her husband’s, Juanita.
To complicate matters further, the woman is also the widow of a famous and respected war hero and a close friend of powerful, commanding officer Rico Parra, one of the men in charge of the mysterious Topaz.
An intense rivalry and suspicion arise between the French spy and the Cuban soldier, loving the same woman, while Devereaux’s wife also has an affair in France.
Amidst these political and personal betrayals, the truth will eventually come out, only through a terrible sacrifice from the rebels.
So many movie genres for only one man
People who follow me know I constantly return to my favorite directors, especially those like Alfred Hitchcock, with a career spanning over fifty years and a vast filmography with some of the most iconic and influential movies ever.
Despite everyone calling him the master of suspense, I think that perhaps it is even a bit restricting, given his versatility in switching from one cinematic genre to another.
Topaz is a prime example of this continual search and refinement, mixing the classic spy thriller plot with family drama overshadowed by nostalgic romance over the protagonist’s lost love.
Alongside this narrative variety, Hitchcock uses different directing styles depending on the scene’s location.
For example, settings in America have a cold and gloomy atmosphere, with very light and impersonal colors.
Moving to Cuba, on the other hand, the sets and colors are very colorful and vibrant, with a strong focus on the social and political dynamics of the Caribbean island.
When we finally arrive in France, however, the photography has a much more elegant and refined atmosphere, which contrasts with the suspicion circulating at the top of the intelligence services where everyone knows there is a mole, although not knowing who he is.
Despite being a commercial success in 1969, Topaz is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s less celebrated movies, partly because the same year movies such as Easy Rider, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Midnight Cowboy overshadowed it.
Moreover, while appreciating the undeniable mastery of suspense and emotional tension, many critics remarked on the excessive length and complexity of the plot.
Instead, I consider Topaz one of his most mature interpretations of the espionage thriller genre, leaving behind the light comedy of North by Northwest to sculpt a rare gem that a true Alfred Hitchcock enthusiast cannot miss.
Amid the talent Cold War, only the best actors survive
Just as the style and narrative change according to location, the same happens with the cast.
Indeed, in Washington or New York, we see the spy ring captained by John Forsythe, playing the cold and manipulative Michael Nordstrom.
After the initial adventure, his friend and real protagonist, Frederick Stafford, aka Agent André Devereaux, enters the scene, and we follow and witness change a great deal in the rest of the story.
The introduction of his wife Nicole, played by Dany Robin, is amusing for the witty and sharp manner she teases their spy business of lies and unspoken truths.
Once the mission begins, we land in Cuba, captivated by the breathtaking beauty of Karin Dor as Juanita de Cordoba, the secret leader of the opposition to Castro.
Although the actress is of German descent, she has no trouble looking like a warm and passionate Cuban, forced to put on two faces to coexist with the constant presence of the relentless Rico Parra, the real enemy played by John Vernon.
This villain is not entirely evil, however, since, at heart, he fights for his country’s sake just as the American and French agents do, following the rules of a game he has not established.
Finally, we turn to the great class of Philippe Noiret for the all-French ending, where this great actor portrays the ambiguous and perfidious Henri Jarre, a double agent in the interminable Cold War between capitalists and communists.
A short time ago, I recommended Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, a masterpiece of comedy and espionage by George Clooney that, although it was very different, kept this same urge to experiment as Alfred Hitchcock.
Although it comes from as far back as 1969, Topaz still has much to teach anyone approaching a career as a movie maker.